“Love is the fulfillment of the law.”
If any pairs of words in the English language are unlikely companions, “law” and “love” must be among them. What do they have to do with each other?
When Jesus met a woman who was crippled and unable to stand up straight for over 18 years, he healed her. He was accused of breaking the law because he did this on the Sabbath. Healing was work, and God’s law forbids work on the Sabbath. But Jesus responded by pointing out that his accusers would lead their oxen and donkeys to water on the Sabbath – an exception for an act of mercy toward animals. How much more should mercy be shown to this suffering woman, a daughter of Abraham? (Luke 13:10-17).
If law is seen as a constraint on freedom (this is all you are allowed to do; some fun is off limits; that is punishable, so don’t get caught!), then what Jesus does and what St. Paul says don’t make much sense. If being a law-keeper is just being a rule-keeper, then loving is about being a rule-breaker, and every situation becomes about choosing one or the other. I think this is a conclusion that many people have been led to, but one based on a poor idea of law. With true law, the fundamental questions are always, “What is good?” and “How is that good achieved?” God’s law is not a fence that keeps me closed in but a ladder that leads out of selfishness, conflict, and sin. It is all about freedom!
If moral law feels like a constraint, that is because it reveals the disorder of the human heart in a fallen world. If protecting the life and good of others seems to be in conflict with what I want, it says more about my need for healing and the reordering of desires than about the law. And that is why when St. Paul refers to God’s commands – “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” – it can all be summed up as, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The law God has revealed is all about human good. What promotes human flourishing? Right worship as opposed to false worship; honoring what is holy as opposed to profaning it; protecting the weak as opposed to exploiting them; advancing life, marriage, and truth as opposed to attacking them. And that is the connection between law and love: love means choosing what is good, and God’s law makes clear what is good. Love cannot fall short of what is proposed in God’s law; it can only go further, from the restraint of command to the free choice of what is good; that is to say, fulfilling the purpose of the law.